The debate between calisthenics fans and weightlifting fans on the better choice for fitness is never ending. Just like that of some of my other posts, this topic gets a lot of attention and opinions in the fitness community. If you do a simple search on any search engine about whether calisthenics or weightlifting is “better”, it’s not uncommon to get results like: “Calisthenics/lifting weights (select the bias) is all you need. Calisthenics/lifting weights (select the other) is actually bad for your joints and doesn’t give you actual results!”
On the other end of the spectrum, you have comments like: “Both calisthenics and weightlifting are useless. As long as you eat healthy and move around once in a while, you don’t need to do either of those!” These views can cause a lot of confusion for not just those that are unfamiliar with these subjects, but even those that have been involved in fitness for some time.
Claims are made by both sides. While a lot of them are valid, there’s also a lot that are myths, exaggerations, or pure untruths. While there will always be people that train a certain way just because that’s how they’ve always trained, it is my hope that this article will shed some light on this age-old debate.
In order to assess which one of these modes of training is “better”, we need to understand some of the goals of those that engage in these training forms. At the top of the list are usually:
- Physique (Mass/Shred)
There are many other goals that those who pursue these forms of exercises may have, but those goals mentioned are the common denominator among most fitness enthusiast. So we’ll be gauging the effects that calisthenics and weightlifting has on these goals and some others as well. Using these goals as a benchmark, we’d get a better grasp on which is right for us and our needs. Let’s get to it!
Body weight exercises, or calisthenics, is the oldest form of physical training known to man. It involved either pulling or pushing our own body weight using various movements. The motion of doing a pushup or a pull-up or prime examples of calisthenics.
A lot of us have probably seen people working out in parks or even in the streets in urban areas. Videos of these “street workouts” have made calisthenics especially popular in the past few years. Youtube has tons of videos of guys doing insane maneuvers using playground equipment like monkey bars and parallel bars.
At the FitExpo in Los Angeles, there is an event called the Battle of the Bars that’s held each year. The competition is exactly as it sounds, competitors battle by doing tricks on a bar that are flashier, more unique, creative and sometimes just flat-out harder than their competitors. The routines are scored by judges and each competitor takes their turn on the bars to go through their routine.
With the help of competitions and videos of street workouts, calisthenics has definitely gotten much more popular now than it was 20 or 30 years ago. But how does it benefit us? Besides just getting into shape and being healthier, does calisthenics carry any other benefits? What advantage does it have over weightlifting? And are we limited in what we can do if all we use us our body weight for working out? I mean, I can do pushups no problem but I don’t want to pump out 100+ every time I want a good workout.
Let’s see some of the benefits that doing calisthenics will bring for us.
To consider the potential strength gains that calisthenics can provide, what better examples to study than those of gymnasts? The training routine of gymnasts involve mainly calisthenics, only requiring apparatuses such as rings, bars, beams and pommel horse. Even then, these apparatuses are used to perform calisthenics exercises on.
So how can we evaluate the strength of your typical gymnast? Consider the experience of gymnastics coach Christopher Sommers with one of his students JJ Gregory. On JJ’s first time lifting weights in high school, he pulled 400 lbs on the deadlift at a body weight of 135 pounds. That almost a triple body weight deadlift during his first time lifting weights in high school.
Another exercise that JJ did was the weighted chin-up, where he was performing them with 75 lbs strapped to a weight belt around his waist. The coach lamented that he may have done more but the weight belt snapped¹.
For those of us that aren’t too familiar with exercises and lifts, a triple body weight deadlift is a rare sight. Typically, unless someone is at least a decent Olympic weightlifter, track and field athlete, or powerlifter, a triple body weight deadlift is not a common feat. Here, we’re talking about someone that has not done that specific lift before, and yet being able to perform it like others that have been training regularly to do it.
Of course, these gymnasts were training to be national champions with the hopes of attending the Olympics. They train on a daily basis with multiple sessions throughout the day. But this fact that calisthenics can get you extremely strong cannot be denied.
Will everyone be able to make it to the Olympics if they trained using calisthenics? No, of course not. Genetics and body types are two of the deciding factors when it comes to being the best in the world. But regardless, or body type or genetics, calisthenics can provide tremendous strength gains for everyone.
In a previous article on flexibility and mobility, we discussed the importance of each of these attributes and how they relate to our movement efficiency. It is no surprised then that calisthenics exercises alone can provide a certain level of flexibility.
This is by no means as an excuse to not stretch or perform stretch assistant exercises. This simply means that learning to handle your own body weight using different maneuvers and motions teaches your body to be more flexible in certain areas.
Take the pistol squat for example (For a detail video on how to perform this exercise, check out my article on 3 best exercises to lose fat). In order to perform this exercise properly, the leg that’s not being worked must extend out in front of our torso. To do this, the hamstring must stretch to a certain degree to allow for the extension of the leg.
If our hamstring flexibility is not there, we will not be able to perform this exercise. But this is just an indicator that our flexibility is lacking. What about maintenance or even improvement?
Well let’s use the example of the pistol squat again. If we perform that exercise regularly, we are consistently stretching our hamstrings. This helps in maintaining our flexibility in that range of motion. The same goes for the flexibility of our lats at the bottom of the pullup position, our chest at the bottom of the pushup positions, our triceps at the bottom of a handstand pushup position, etc.
Nothing can replace flexibility work alone. Daily stretching is a healthy routine to have, regardless if we’re working out or not. But calisthenics can definitely help with telling us where we need work and maintaining our current level of flexibility.
If you still haven’t read the flexibility and mobility article I linked to earlier, then I suggest you do. If you have, good job. You understand the correlation these two attributes have and the differences between the two.
Now that we’ve established that flexibility can at least be maintained with calisthenics, what about mobility?
If we really think about it, calisthenics really is just mobility exercises that expresses strength. All the body weight type movements show that we have the mobility to move through those difficult ranges of motion using the strength from the body parts involved in the movement.
Just like flexibility, mobility can be maintained by regularly engaging in calisthenics. Going through those different maneuvers while carrying our body weight not only keeps our joint, ligaments, tendons, and other tissues strong, we also maintain the mobility required to move through those ranges of motion.
And also like flexibility, mobility should be worked on separately as well. Especially when we get to higher levels of calisthenics and more difficult exercises, our bodies will need more time to recover. Mobility exercises helps with the recovery process by opening up areas of the body, allowing for removal of waste products and entry of fresh blood.
As mentioned before, we see calisthenics being performed in parks and competitions with bars and rings and such. But are such apparatuses really needed? Do I have to own certain equipment or go to a park just to perform calisthenics exercises?
We can all agree that the answer is no. Calisthenics can be done as long as you have a stable surface and gravity, both of which are plentiful here on Earth. Sure, there are certain exercises that we can’t perform without a pullup bar, or parallel bars, or rings, but a lot of general and basic calisthenics exercises can be performed with absolutely no equipment whatsoever.
Consider the one arm handstand pushup. It’s difficult enough for a lot of us just to hold the one arm handstand position against a wall for balance. Now we can up the difficulty by practicing on a free standing one arm handstand. To make it even harder, we can work on doing a free standing one arm handstand pushup.
This goes to show the convenience that calisthenics comes with. Although having certain equipment helps with the exercises, they are not a requirement to gain their benefits.
Of course, pullup bars and parallel bars are quite common playground and park apparatuses, so it’s not as if they’re exactly scarce. If you live in a remote area or would rather have your own equipment, pullup bars and rings are pretty cheap to purchase and easy to install in your own home. Remember that with rings, you will need something to hang them from, like a pullup bar. Or you could improvise and use a tree branch 🙂
Leverage Is Key
One common question I see I a lot of people asks is: “Aren’t we limited by how much weight we can lift with calisthenics? Our body weight is constant and in order to get stronger, the principle of progressive overload must be followed.” The latter statement is true, progressively overloading our bodies in a safe manner is required in order to get stronger.
As far as the answer to their first question, it is technically true that we are limited with the amount of weight we can lift with pure calisthenics. That weight is controlled by our body weight and we cannot lift any more than that. But how does a gymnast like JJ Gregory that we discussed get to deadlifting 400 lbs when his weight had never exceeded 135 lbs? Or cranking out 75 lb weighted pullups?
The answer is leverage. By decreasing the leverage that of certain exercises, the difficulty can be magnified exponentially. A simple example should make it all clear. Let’s compare the support technique on the rings vs the iron cross. Both exercises involves the same exact amount of weight, our own body weight. Yet, most of us can probably perform the support on the rings with no problem, while only a few of us can perform the iron cross. This is purely due to decreasing the leverage available to support the same amount of weight.
By decreasing the leverage that we have, the muscles and tissues involved in the movement have to work that much harder to perform the exercise. If we’re familiar with basic physics, we know that leverage makes a HUGE difference when it comes to the force required to move a certain object.
Another way to think about it is a seesaw. If the fulcrum is exactly in the middle, two equal forces on each side will balance out. But if the fulcrum is placed closer to point A, a greater force will need to be applied on point A to balance out a lesser force at point B. Now imagine the fulcrum being placed only inches away from point A and the length of the whole seesaw is 10 feet long. Just to keep the weight of the seesaw itself balanced, a tremendous amount of force would need to be applied at point A.
This is basically what’s happening with some of the most advanced calisthenic exercises.
For those of us that are weightlifters, this example should feel a little close to home. When it comes to gripping a barbell, let’s compare the overhand grip with both hands vs the mixed grip where one hand is overhand and the other is underhand. The overhand grip will obviously be harder. The barbell has the potential to roll out towards our bodies where with the mixed grip, our underhand grip directly prevents that. Training with the harder grip will get your grip stronger than with the easier one. Calisthenics uses this exact principle to get us stronger.
Next time you do a pushup, try leaning forward a bit more or have your hands placed closer to your midsection. This will feel harder than if your hands were out by our shoulders. Now take it one step further and lift your feet off the ground and tuck your knees to your chest. This is a whole different world of difficulty. You’re experiencing the decrease in leverage and increase in difficulty that results from it. This progression eventually leads to a gymnastics move called the planche.
I hope it’s clear at this point how calisthenics can help us gain a great deal of strength and help to maintain and possibly even improve our flexibility. In order to execute the most advanced of calisthenics exercises, we must have mastery over our bodies and the way they move.
Our bodies are only as strong as the weakest link, and there can be no weaknesses in order to perform advanced calisthenics correctly. If there are weaknesses, they will be exposed and the exercises won’t be performed up to the standard.
So we’ve come to the other side of the debate, weightlifting. In this case, the term weightlifting is used in the context of training with weights, whether free weights or machines. This is not to be confused with Olympic weightlifting, as I’m not talking about just that exclusively. I will however be including Olympic weightlifting in this discussion.
Just like calisthenics, weightlifting also has a long history. Records of physical training using weights can be traced back to at least the 2nd century in ancient Greece. Ancient Greek sculptures also exhibited lifting of heavy objects and other weights as expressions of strength and physical prowess.
Records of Olympic weightlifting as a sport can be traced back to the late 1800’s, although competitions held for the sake of who can lift the most weight can be traced back to centuries earlier. Throughout the decades, the lifts and rules have changed quite a bit, but the basic objective remains the same; lift more weight than your competitors.
Within the last 50 to 60 years, exercise machines and commercial gyms were introduced and popularized on a global scale. Weightlifting has taken on a new meaning, where it was regarded as for strongmen and athletes are now a recreational hobby and a means to stay healthy for the public.
So how does this form of training stack up when it comes to strength, flexibility, and other physical attributes?
As with any other forms of physical exercise, weightlifting follows the principle of progressive overload. And following this principle, powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters are some of the strongest people in the world. I should note that very rarely do professional weightlifters train exclusively with weights only. There are also plenty of calisthenics involved with their training but lifting weights is their primary mode of training.
Consider some of the world records for different lifts that’s been held in competition. As far as powerlifting goes, there have been multiple over 1,000 lb squats. People have varying opinions of what’s considered a true squat given the depth, knee wraps, suit, high bar or low bar, etc. I personally feel that even a low bar squat with a suit and knee wraps, as long as it’s parallel or below, a squat is a squat. With that said, there are a handful of people who can perform such a feat and it is truly breath-taking to see, even just on video.
Olympic weightlifters also have records of their own. The current clean and jerk and snatch world records for the heaviest weight class is 264 kg (582 lb) and 214 kg (467 lb), respectively.
Then there are strongmen who compete in the World’s Strongest Men (WSM) competitions each year. As mentioned before, these athletes does not train with weights exclusively, they also use some form of calisthenics in their training. But every event in WSM is designed to show how much weight a competitor can lift, throw, carry, push, etc. And looking into the training routine of any strongman, the actual events encountered at these competitions are a large part of their routine.
Without having to go into the boring science, we can see that weightlifting works when it comes to getting strong. It’s not a coincidence that the strongest people in the world using weights as part of their training program.
Weightlifting in general does not do a whole lot for flexibility. We can definitely do calisthenics exercises and simply add weight to them and it’d be consider weightlifting. That way, we’d can still have some of the flexibility benefits that calisthenics provide. But the nature of weightlifting gears more towards strengthening a muscle group within a limited range of motion.
I’m not saying that no weightlifting exercise can help with flexibility. I’m making the point that most exercises done with weights are not conducive to improving or even maintaining flexibility in the specific muscle group being worked.
In addition, with the option to add on more weight to any exercise, growth of the muscle group is expected. To a greater degree than calisthenics, growth from weightlifting can add on a lot of muscle mass. With the additional mass, it’s even more important to focus on individualized flexibility work to keep the muscle group and surrounding tissues flexible and joints nimble.
We all know at this point that mobility is reliant on flexibility (For the last time, if you still have not read it, check out this article to see why that is!!!). So when our flexibility isn’t getting better with weightlifting exercises alone, you can bet that our mobility isn’t getting better either.
That’s why there is such a need for mobility exercises and equipment. With the increased muscle growth, muscle adhesion and “stickiness” are much more common with regular weightlifting. While these blockages in our muscle might not affect our flexibility a whole lot, our mobility is definitely compromised.
There is a theory I’ve read from at least one Olympic weightlifting coach by the name of John Broz that heavy lifting every day prevents our mobility from suffering. Even without specific mobility, this theory proposed that the muscles are not fully recovered before the next training session, therefore it does not have the time to get glued together and form adhesions. Whether this theory is true or not remains to be seen. I have yet to try it out myself.
But just like flexibility work, it’s more than just good practice to work on our mobility on a regular basis. It keeps our joints, connective tissues, and overall physicality in a healthy state. So if you want the scoop on reliable mobility equipment, check out this review here.
Here is the obvious drawback of weightlifting. As the name implies, you need to be lifting an object with weight in order for it to be classified as weightlifting. So equipment is a must for this form of physical training. While there are no shortages of commercial gyms and home gym equipment that we can purchase, we have to either travel to the gym or fork out cash to purchase the actual equipment.
Small dumbbells and kettlebells are indeed convenient especially for traveling because of their portability. But you can only do a limited number of exercises with these. Plus, lugging around these weights in your baggage is always going to be pleasant, especially when you’re late and trying to catch the plane.
The silver lining here however is that virtually anything can be used as a weight for lifting. As long as it’s safe and you can lift it, feel free to use it for weightlifting purposes. Bricks, cinder blocks, buckets filled with gravel or sand, etc. Our muscles cannot differentiate between a loaded barbell and a bucket full of dirt. They’re both weighted objects and takes the same amount of force to lift (given they weight the same).
The stimulus involved with weightlifting is purely external. The weights that we lift provide the stimulus, unlike calisthenics where our body weight dictates the amount of weight we lift. This can be a positive or a negative depending on our perspective.
The only way I see this as a negative has to do with the convenience factor mentioned previously. Having to have an external stimulus means that some sort of equipment is required. We can lift weights without anything to lift. But that was covered as an inconvenience. I see the fact that weightlifting uses external stimuli as a positive.
We all have to lift objects besides our own bodies at one point or another in our lives. Whether it’s changing a tire, lifting boxes, or carrying a person, these are all activities that we either, will have to do, are doing regularly, or have done in the past.
By training with external weights, we learn to lift external objects with the correct technique. It’s true that technique is also very important in calisthenics and learning to move out own bodies in the correct manner is vital. But weightlifting teaches us something that calisthenics does not when it comes to handling external loads.
Yes, calisthenics can get us super strong, just like it did for JJ Gregory and his 400 lb deadlift. However, being familiar with the lift and other forms of weightlifting would’ve gave JJ an advantage over his team mates when it comes to lifting external loads. Of course, being a gymnast carrying external loads does not matter in the sport. But the point is that this is the one area where weightlifting shines.
While any form of physical training will induce muscle growth, weightlifting really is on a class of its own. A simple comparison of bodybuilders with the rest of the athletes in the world will show the growth that’s possible with lifting weights. Of course, the style of training as far as rep and set counts, rest time, and specific exercise types all comes into play. But bodybuilders are not lifting weights for no reason.
The same exercise used in weightlifting cannot be used in calisthenics to achieve the same growth. Take the regular squat for example. A regular squat with only body weight is considered a calisthenics movement. There is only so much weight that’s being moved each time the squat is performed. Even the untrained may be able to crank out 10+ reps of this exercise.
Now take the barbell squat, one of the best weightlifting exercises there is (find out why). We can keep the same motion of squatting down and then up, but simply add more load to the barbell as we get stronger in the lift. Over time, our legs will be much stronger AND bigger with this exercise using weights than if we only did this exercise with body weight.
Another advantage that enables much more growth with weightlifting than any other form of physical training is isolation. While I’m not a fan of isolation exercises, it does have its place in bodybuilding from what I can see.
The bicep preacher curl is one such example. By focusing on lifting a certain weight with only the bicep muscles, the muscle can be fatigued to a much higher state, inducing more muscle growth. This is much harder, if not impossible to do with calisthenics as other muscles are always involved in most if not all calisthenic exercises. This creates room for muscle failure in other areas prior to muscle failure in the muscle being worked.
But haven’t you seen the gymnast in the Olympics? Those guys are huge! They’re all ripped to shreds so what are you talkin’ bout weightlifting is better for muscle growth?
Calisthenics does build muscle, and as pointed out, they can do wonders in that department. But from a pure muscle growth perspective, weightlifting is where the most growth occurs. Gymnasts as a matter of fact are training for strength, mobility, and skill, rather than bigger muscles. The muscle growth can almost be viewed as a by-product of their training for those other attributes.
Calisthenic Vs. Weightlifting
So which is the winner? Which one is better? There really is no clear cut answer to this question.
As said before in my previous articles, it all depends on your goals. A rule of thumb I generally follow is to:
- Find out how others that are successful in your field are training
- Imitate or follow their training principles
- See if you achieve your desired results
- Learn other methods and see if they can be incorporated
- Repeat steps 3 and 4.
In this case, I feel that both carry great benefits and we should have both in our training regimens. I personally feel that weightlifting exercises like barbell squats, deadlifts, snatches, and clean and jerks are irreplaceable by any other exercise. I also feel that for me, calisthenics like muscle-ups, front levers, planches, and any exercises on the rings are invaluable for strength building.
It’s up to you to decide which is better for you in your personal journey to fitness and health.
I hope you have enjoyed this article. Please share with me in the comments below what your physical training of choice is and why. Look forward to your comments!